Tag Archives: panorama

The Great Wi-Fi Swindle (redux)

Last week I blogged about Panorama’s then upcoming programme about the supposed dangers of wi-fi. Nich Starling castigated me for criticising the programme before having watched it, which was fair enough. So, having watched to programme this lunchtime, what do I think?

What I think is that TV programmes that investigate potential health risks ought to spend at least 25% of the time explaining the science behind the issue. What I think is that the motto that should be plastered above the monitors of the whole production team should be ‘remember the MMR scare’. What I think is that they should avoid using loaded terminology, such as insisting on the sensationalist word ‘radiation’ instead of the more mundane ‘radio waves’ (same number of syllables, natch) and shouldn’t use hyphenated portmanteau nonsense words like ‘electro-smog’ which were coined by the anti-lobby. What I think is that you shouldn’t question the independence of one scientist while swallowing whole the agenda of another, as Ben Goldacre has pointed out.

I don’t think you should use an alleged health condition like electro-magnetic sensitivity as proof of another alleged health condition that radio waves give you cancer. I think that you shouldn’t take the isolated results of one woman who appears to be able to sense radio waves as proof when the whole study has not been published yet. I think you should take note of the researchers of that study who appear to think that the best ‘cure’ for electromagnetic sensitivity is cognitive behavioural therapy. I think that if 3% of the UK population suffered from electromagnetic sensitivity, we might have noticed before now.

And finally, I agree with Guy Kewney: Sir William Stewart (not to be confused with William G Stewart, lest Will Howells accuse me of blasphemy) should indeed ‘shit or get off the pot‘. Yes, by all means have another review. In fact, with new technology like this, it is probably a good idea to have a review every five years or so for a good half-century. But let’s have a bit of perspective, eh?

The Great Wi-Fi Swindle

Last week, BBC’s Panorama did an expose on the Scientologists, a cult that believes we are all imprisoned space aliens. This week, the same programme is purporting to prove that wi-fi fries your brain. And so, the cosmic balance of the BBC’s sensible/face-slappingly idiotic halves is once again restored.

I don’t really know where to start. James Randerson gives it a gentle booting in the Guardian, which broadly sums up the response, but no words can quite describe the sheer appallingness of comparing a mobile phone mast signal from 100m away with a wi-fi signal from 1m away and coming up with the scare statistic that the latter is 3 times more powerful than the former. So I have to get this off my chest. Indulge me.

If the two signals were exactly the same strength, the inverse square law would mean that with a distance differential of 100, the 1m away signal would be 10,000 times more powerful. So, taking that into account, you can conclude from these figures that the wi-fi signal is more than 3,000 times weaker than the mobile phone mast (3,333 point 3 recurring, but who’s counting?). The mobile phone mast which, lest us forget, there is no evidence causes any harm in the first place.

It beats me why they stopped their. If they had compared a wi-fi signal from 10 cm with a mobile phone mast signal from 1 km away, they could have shouted about wi-fi being 30,000 times stronger than mobile phones. That sounds much scarier. And why not? There’s nothing particularly significant about 1m and 100m – just two numbers they plucked out of the air.

Compared to all this, Scientology sounds positively evidence-based, and at least Martin Durkin can come up with a couple of impressive looking graphs. On which point, I recommend everyone picks up a copy of this week’s New Scientist, which rather satisfyingly eviscerates the Great Global Warming Swindle point by point (in fact, the online version appears to have even more myth debunking).